The Prisoners of Second Avenue

In Minneapolis, living in your own house could get you arrested

It was Tuesday, October 6. Early, around 7 or so. Riding a flashy squad and a gray inspections car, Robin Utto and her trusty sidekicks--Police Officer Ron Reier and Assistant Field Inspector Woody Dickson--were headed east into the morning sun, ready to roust scofflaws wherever they might hide. Their first stop was a house owned by Adel Gardner and Michael Reilly, in the 3200 block of Second Avenue South, facing the 35W sound-barrier wall.

"We heard a really loud pounding on the door--bang, bang, bang--and then there they all were, standing in the front entry," recounts the petite Gardner, who greeted the trio in the remodeler's uniform of paint-spattered clothes. "The policeman said, 'It was open.' But they hadn't even waited for us to answer, they just walked right in. It was scary, especially for the kids.

"Then Robin Utto said, 'Do you live here?' And I said, trying to evade the question a bit: 'You can see that we're almost done. We have kids. All we do is work on our home.'"

After six days away, Adel Gardner and Michael Reilly are sleeping in their own beds again--legally, this time
Craig Lassig
After six days away, Adel Gardner and Michael Reilly are sleeping in their own beds again--legally, this time

But the law was in no mood for mercy. "Utto said, 'No argument, no exceptions. You cannot work on this house except from 8 to 5.' If you are here tomorrow before 8 a.m., you'll be arrested."

Utto and her escorts left a bewildered Gardner behind and drove a few blocks to the corner of 31st Street and Third Avenue to the 1886 Queen Anne where Don Lampert had been living for several months. The same sequence of events ensued--knocks, questions, pleas for mercy. Lampert--tall and thin, his outfit accessorized with some plaster dust sprinkled across the forehead--says he asked, "'What if I want to just stop in? To check the heat or plumbing? Or feed the cat?' And the cop answered me, 'This is fair warning. If we catch you in the house after 5 or before 8, we can arrest you.' They pointed toward the police car--there was a guy sitting in the back--and they said, 'We should be taking you in, too. Do you want to get some stuff?'"

Then, says Lampert, Utto looked at her watch: "It must have been near 8, because she told me that now I could be in the house." The squad and its gray shadow drove off, while Lampert, like Gardner a few blocks away, set to finishing the day's work and packing an overnight bag. By 5 that evening, both homeowners had dutifully left their houses--though not without consternation. How would they ever finish their massive renovation projects if they couldn't work after their day jobs? Gardner and her partner Michael Reilly, who between them have three children ages 1, 4, and 16, also worried how to explain their sudden move to the kids.

The story of the two morning busts spread quickly through the tight-knit community of urban-pioneer homeowners in the Central neighborhood. Housing inspectors, area residents are quick to acknowledge, have a tough job: Like tax auditors, they enforce codes that will require people to spend money and go through hassles. Utto's name generally elicits praise for a competent, if tough, city official. But the October 6 stops, says longtime resident Keith Miller, infuriated even Utto's supporters: "This incident has upset some of the neighbors, destroyed the trust with Inspections. You don't just walk into a house. How dare you?"

Fielding that question at City Hall has been Connie Fournier, the deputy director of the Inspections Department. (City Pages' phone calls to Utto were returned by a co-worker and directed to Fournier.) Fournier says housing inspectors frequently ask police officers to back them up for trips to buildings that are supposed to be empty. But rarely, she says, do they find homeowners in them. And, she notes, "these people will admit that they knew that they were living in these houses illegally."

Indeed they do. Neither Gardner nor Lampert deny having known that buildings which were once boarded up and condemned--like the turn-of-the-century structures they are renovating--must by law be brought to full housing code compliance before being occupied. But like other owners of fixer-uppers throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul, they say they could never have undertaken their projects while making two mortgage payments or paying rent on another place.

David Piehl, head of the housing committee for the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association (CNIA), estimates that, at any given time, 12 to 15 homeowners in the Central neighborhood are working on houses that are "technically not occupiable." Says Piehl, "It almost goes without saying that people are going to move in before they get the certificate of code compliance. It's such a drawn-out and extensive process that it's really impossible financially for the homeowners to wait for the final compliance."

A walk through Lampert's house confirms the massive nature of the restoration projects, as well as the potential payoff. A floor of maple and cherry peeks out from beneath thick layers of vinyl adhesive in the dining room. Upstairs, sunlight streams through one of the house's original stained-glass windows, ornamented with green and gold tulips. These windows, explains Lampert, were reassembled from pieces that were lying on the floor among mountains of trash and bad plaster when the house was purchased.

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